We have no objection to fine fish served on a china plate in polite surroundings, but there is extra-special pleasure in sleeves-up meals dished out by seafood shacks. Such eating is especially right in the summer, on vacation, or as the destination for a weekend getaway. Most of the best shacks are near the ocean, lake, or river that is home of what they serve. Each of these 10 favorites is a great taste of regional delights served in a setting radiant with local color.
1240 Ocean Road, Narragansett, Rhode Island
Perfumed by the salty waters of Narragansett Bay and bathed by sun that reflects off surrounding sands, Aunt Carrie's serves meals that sing with flavors of the Ocean State. Chowder and crunchy clam cakes, fish and chips, and fresh pie are served across the take-out counter, from which customers take meals to their car or picnic table. There is an indoor dining room too, where full-bore shore dinners include lobsters ready to crack and old-fashioned Indian pudding.
5510 S. Lakeshore Drive, Ludington, Michigan
You catch it, they'll cook it. BYO seafood to this old fish market and smokehouse across from Summitt Park where the menu includes walleye, catfish, trout, and whitefish from nearby waters. Bortell's also imports ocean perch and Alaskan salmon; so even if you don't have your own catch, you will have a wide variety of flavorful smoked fish from which to choose. It is sold by the piece or pound. There is no dining room, and business is strictly take-out. Once you get your fish, find a picnic table to eat outside in the shade under the grove of ancient beech trees.
The Clam Box
246 High Street, Ipswich, Massachusetts
Fried clam lovers agree: Soft-shelled bivalves dug from the mudflats on Essex Bay are the best. And the Clam Box of Ipswich has been making the best of the best for decades. The place itself is a hoot, built in the 1930s to resemble a clam box ? the trapezoidal cardboard container in which fried clams are sold by the pint. The way to eat is to have a whole clam platter, which includes not only a heap of crunchy, soft-centered beauties but also superior French fries, onion rings, coleslaw, and tartar sauce. Dine indoors or at picnic tables on a broad wooden deck.
The Clam Shack
Route 9, Kennebunkport, Maine
The Clam Shack anchors one end of the bridge that connects Kennebunk to Kennebunkport. There are no utensils in the house because everything served is finger food, eminently suitable for eating while leaning against the bridge railing or just standing on the sidewalk watching traffic pass. Fried clams, sold by the pint, are excellent ? crisp-crusted and heavy with juice-bursting marine succulence ? but it's lobster rolls that are stratospheric. Big hunks of fresh-picked meat are arrayed across the bottom of a broad roll. It is your choice to have them bathed in warm butter or dolloped with cool mayonnaise before the roll's top is planted. This is a Maine summer pleasure to make any lobster-lover weak-kneed.
Route 5, Mechanicsville, Maryland
A combination liquor store, seafood market, and restaurant, Copsey's is best known for its crab feast: a spill of highly spiced, steamed hard-shelled crabs served with mallets for cracking shells and picks for extracting meat. It is also a great place to eat big meaty crab cakes, pounds of peel-yourself steamed shrimp (infused with the same peppery orange spice mix that is used on the crabs), and raw oysters by the dozen. This is definitely where the locals eat. Many regular patrons come to eat fried chicken dinners; they are apparently that blasÃ© about their superb local seafood.
3832 Savannah Highway, Johns Island, South Carolina
A fundamental rule for finding good things to eat while traveling is to look for restaurants located in former gas stations. We don't know why, but they're some of the best Roadfood stops. To wit: Fishnet Seafood. It isn't really a restaurant at all; it is a fish market with no tables, not even provision for stand-up eating. But if you point to just about any fish in the house, the staff will bread it and fry it to order, and in this part of coastal South Carolina, frying is a fine art. Flounder is particularly wonderful, sheathed in a brittle gold crust, its sweet white meat dripping moisture.
5150 Oyster Drive, Bay City, Oregon
Attached to a very large oyster-processing plant on the ocean side of Route 101 is a charming little dining area and fish market where you can find a table and feast on Northwest seafood. Dungeness crab is available in a crab melt made with Oregon's own Tillamook cheddar cheese; and of course, oysters are always fresh, opened when ordered, and served either on the half shell or in shot glasses as seafood shooters, ready to gulp. Another treat is a salmon stick, a staff of salty/sweet smoked salmon that is like beef jerky, but easier to chew.
891 Boston Post Road, Guilford, Connecticut
The Place is a picnic. Totally al fresco (with tents for inclement weather), it is spread out around a big cook-pit of smoldering wood on which sweet corn is roasted in its husk (then stripped and dunked in melted butter), and clams are cooked on the half shell, each one brushed with a buttery cocktail sauce that sizzles. Whole lobsters are the center of the feast; and if you want salad, bread, dessert, or wine, bring your own.
Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk Street, San Francisco, California
Here's an urban seafood shack that is a combination oyster bar and storefront market. Seating is limited to a 19-seat counter, where your chances of walking in and finding a seat at mealtime are near zero. Still, it's well worth the wait to sit down and tuck into oysters on the half-shell (Atlantic or Pacific), cracked Dungeness crab from November into spring, lobster, prawns, and creamy chowder. Side your meal with sourdough bread, and wash it down with Anchor steam beer.
Two Lights Lobster Shack
225 Two Lights Road, Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Below the lighthouse and next to the foghorn, seated at picnic tables overlooking the Atlantic surf and ships coming into Portland's harbor, customers of Two Lights Lobster Shack tuck into all the seafood for which the Maine coast is famous. This is the place to come for clam cakes and crabmeat rolls, lobster stew and New England clam chowder, and of course, whole lobsters with French fries, slaw, and biscuits. Desserts include such Yankee faves as Grape-Nuts custard pudding and Whoopie Pie.